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Fire

No doubt making the most of over-time rates, this morning (Sunday) the NPWS lit up six hundred hectares in the Murrah Flora Reserve. According to the Rural Fire Service it is not a planned burn and the ‘Fires near me” map  suggests the fire is in the Mumbulla section of the reserve. However, the 50 kilometer smoke plume is actually emanating from an area some 15 kilometers north of the RFS location, in the Cuttagee catchment.

As indicated in the photo below, at a corner of Murrah River road, it is difficult to describe the burn ‘patchy’.  Rather, it appears to be quite a hot burn, consuming all ground cover in this location. While a visit in a few days will be required, I expect the fire will kill many of the forest oaks in the area and scorch the canopies of eucalyptus, particularly regrowth trees.

While some of us have become accustomed to forest mismanagement, the fact that this burn comes so soon after the report on Cuttagee catchment, is a little disturbing. Is this the NPWS’s management response to the dozens of erosion points identified in the catchment report? If so, where is the scientific evidence confirming burning will not exacerbate these erosion problems?

Then there is the so-called Murrah Reserve steering committee, allegedly established to facilitate community consultation and draw up another interim management plan. There has been no information from this committee, but if it agrees with the burn, it seems reasonable to assume ESFM is clearly not a consideration.

 

If one were looking for advice on forest management, the tablelands, where 2,000 square kilometers of eucalyptus woodland has died, may be a better option.  In particular a document titled  ‘Introducing some key management principles for restoring Box Gum Grassy Woodlands’ (Stol, J., 2016).

A quote from the paper indicates ” . . . Australia has largest truffle diversity of any continent with approx.1,500 – 2,000 species of an estimated 5000 spp
worldwide
 Eucalypts and many other members of the Myrtaceae are highly dependent on mycorrhiza formation for survival and growth.
 Mycorrhizal fungi assist plants to repel parasitic organisms, obtain limiting soil nutrients, and ameliorate adverse soil conditions and severe climatic conditions by improving water relations
 sites that have been cleared for grazing or degraded may be depleted of these important fungi.

The paper raises the question  – “Truffle presence was found by Stol and Trappe (2010) to be negligible in paddock trees. Are high nutrient levels, damage to the network of fine roots near surface and resulting lack of truffles one of the less recognised background issues contributing to dieback?

In addition ‘Truffles need good soil moisture and leaf litter (ie. ‘mulch’)’  and logically the native species to spread their spores. If we are to believe the NPWS forests don’t need truffles or animals.

Both of them can’t be right.

 

 

The Bega District News recently reported that forests from Ulladulla to Eden, are one of 18,000 areas worldwide recognised as a biodiversity hotspot. The report coincides with the start of the NSW government’s broad acre forest burning season. After all, if one has a biodiversity hot spot logging and burning it are a priority.

Currently there are thousands of hectares burning, mostly to ‘reduce fuel loads’. Regrettably the fact that there is no science confirming burning reduces the chances of, or the intensity of a wildfire is seemingly lost on forest managers and the Rural Fire Service.

One of the areas proposed for burning is Bournda National Park, about 20 km south of here. In this case the NPWS plan to burn 600 hectares, about one quarter of the park area. According to NPWS area manager Stephen Dovey, the burn, north of Wallagoot lake, aims to ‘reduce fuel loads and reinvigorate native plants dependant on fire in their life cycle’.

However, the Bournda NP Management Plan, indicates ” . . . Much of the forest of the park and reserve was logged and regularly burnt prior to reservation and there are few large trees. The most intensively affected area was north of Wallagoot Lake, where species such as tree ferns have been largely removed and in places dense stands of Allocasuarina have replaced eucalypts. Protection from frequent fire will be important in encouraging return of these areas to a more natural condition and improvement of their habitat value (see section 4.1.4).”

Burning Allocasuarina stands, or adding disturbance to disturbance, is unlikely to encourage the return of these areas to a more natural condition. A more likely outcome will be an increased potential for wildfire, crown burning in the few remaining large trees and a new crop of Allocasuarina.

 

Earlier this year former forester and burning advocate Vic Jurskis, wrote an opinion piece titled ‘Too Many Koalas, Too Little Science’. While in this case he suggests radio collaring and tracking koalas around here will provide more information than the long term surveys. Vic’s main argument is that koalas are every where and regular burning is required to keep forests healthy and koala numbers down.

Vic suggests “ . . . Ecological research, environmental legislation and land management should be based on an appreciation of ecological history.” While I tend to agree with this statement, missing from Vic’s koala argument is the fact that the history of translocating ‘island’ koalas to locations in South Australia, Victoria, NSW and the ACT, has led to very different outcomes in different locations. 

At this location Vic indicates ” . . . I searched the area with fellow conservationists and members of South East Timber Association, Peter and Kerry Rutherford. In a short space of time, Kerry spotted a female koala with a joey on its back, clinging to a coppice stem growing from a cut stump in 35-year-old regrowth forest. I found no sign of koalas in a stand of old growth forest on the other side of the road. However, the old trees and the regrowth trees were all very conspicuously declining in health and their roots were smothered by dangerously heavy fuel loads of litter, shrubbery and fallen timber. The local population of koalas is clearly in a phase of irruption and is destined either for decline or for sudden destruction by wildfire.”

As Peter Rutherford is a member of the OE&H’s flora reserve management team, I’m expecting to see plumes of smoke any day now.

Lastly the photo taken last night, is a young wombat that has taken to digging large holes under the orchard fence, even after I put a wombat gate in for it. Thankfully on this occasion it used the gate for its entry and exit.   

 

Forestry Corporation has announced it plans to burn up to 20,000 hectares on the south coast this year, claiming it is ‘critical to our capacity to manage wildfires over summer.’ The burns will also include areas that have recently been logged to ‘create a rich seed bed that promotes forest regrowth’.

Of course there is no evidence to support these claims, rather there is much evidence to disprove them. The problem is that many are prepared to believe it, apparently assuming Forestry Corporation know and can rationally explain, what they are doing.

For its part, it is now eight months since the OE&H announced the composition, twelve men and one woman, of its gender unequal flora reserve working group. Despite the passage of time, there has not been one announcement from this group. Similarly, the OE&H are yet to respond to my relatively straight forward request for contact details.

In the hope, neurotic though it may be, of getting some movement. I’ve sent the request, along with some background information, to the NSW Environment Minister, the Hon. Gabrielle Upton, inviting her to respond.

According to the Ministers website, the response time can be up to 20 working days, depending on the complexity of the request.

Last month a new Korean strain of the rabbit calicivirus was released at 1000 sites across the nation. The impact on rabbits is not expected to be as great as the original release of the virus, or the first release of Myxomatosis, back in 1950.

At that time, the national population of rabbits was reduced from an estimated 600 million, down to 100 million. Not surprisingly this reduction would have had a significant negative impact on rabbit predators, particularly foxes.

One probable outcome is increased fox predation on native species and as experienced in most coastal forests, a reduction or extinction of native species necessary to maintain soil fertility and forest health.

Moving forward to the 1960’s, the Forestry Commission observes a general reduction in forest growth. Consequently, Forestry forms the belief that the downturn is due to many years of selective logging. So it moves toward integrated logging, opening up the canopy to ‘create a rich seed bed that promotes forest regrowth’.

Luckily Forestry doesn’t need everyone to believe its claims, just its regulators, the OE&H and the EPA.

As part of it’s asset protection works, the NPWS have been clearing around critical assets – road signs. While such work is expected, the methods employed seem to be inconsistent with the latest koala Priority Action Statement (PAS).

According to the PAS – ” . . . Intense prescribed burns or wildfires that scorch or burn the tree canopy : Liaise with relevant authorities or land managers to ensure that identified koala habitat areas are defined as assets for protection in fire planning tools when managing wildfires and prior to any hazard reduction burns. Promote best practice fire management protocols in areas of significant koala populations. Liaise with authorities or land managers to ensure that any unavoidable prescribed burns within koala habitat are conducted in a way that minimises impacts on koala habitat.”

As indicated in the picture below, the clearing involved cutting down two trees. If reducing fire hazard was the aim, cutting the tree trunks a metre off the ground, thereby creating standing dead wood, seems inconsistent with this aim. Similarly the heads of the trees, have been pushed under adjacent trees, creating fine fuels, also a metre above the ground. A simple solution would be to cut the trees down at ground level and remove the branches so the logging debris is all on the ground.

oak-cutting
Meanwhile the Nature Conservation Council is seeking donations to encourage more use of renewable energy, particularly wind and solar.

If local conservation groups were concerned about climate change and supported a different approach, the NCC could also push for the NPWS to move toward a carbon negative approach to management.

I expect the NPWS asset protection workers were driving a large diesel powered twin cab ute. An alternative vehicle could be a hybrid fossil fuel/ electric powered unit.

In that case the trunks of the aforementioned trees could be employed to generate electricity to power the vehicles. The charcoal from this process, about 90% carbon, could then be put in the ground. This approach would decrease CO2 emissions, increase soil water holding capacity, reduce soil acidity and perhaps aid in reducing die-back.

Of course, such an approach requires both support for and the implementation of best practice fire management protocols, in areas of significant koala populations.

As reported in the Bega District News, a group of south coast oyster farmers recently met at Wapengo Lake. Clearly working to improve their Environmental Management System (EMS), the article referred to research, initiated by the farmers, into oyster growth rates in seven south coast catchments. The results found oysters in Wapengo Lake had the highest growth rates.

In addition, the research found different parts of the lake provided the best conditions for oyster growth, at different times of the year.

The EMS coordinator pointed out that oyster farms could be influenced by other land management practises, including cows in streams and unsealed roads and tracks. Graham Major, one of the Wapengo farmers said “ . . . We owe what we have here to the local landholders –  what happens on the land ends up working into the lake and that affects us greatly.”

I can attest to the work of the local land-care group, having joined them, now many years ago, to help plant trees and shrubs along Wapengo Creek. However, as indicated in the map below, much of Wapengo catchment was, until recently, State Forest. About 45% of the Wapengo is private land and most of the rest is now part of the Murrah Flora reserve.

Also indicated on the map is the most recent logging event in the catchment during 1994. Other larger areas in the south were logged in 1992 and 1993. Since that time and to the best of my knowledge, there has been no logging or deliberate burning in the forest. Although the last time the roads were graded was at least a decade ago.

 

wapengo-tenure1

 

 

The BDN also reported on recommendations from the Independent Prices and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART). Among other things the IPART draft report suggests rating oyster growers, for using land (?) below the high water mark.

Naturally, oyster growers are less than enthusiastic about the proposal.

It would appear, that in Wapengo at least, growers face significant changes to forest management practices, given proposals to introduce broad acre burning, allegedly to protect koalas.

So it’s interesting that Bega Valley Shire Council, the ultimate recipient of any rates extorted from the oyster growers, is also represented on the cabal, for want of a better word, proposing the broad acre burning and posing a threat to water quality.

It may be one of those ‘catch 22’ situations, growers who can afford to pay rates to council, do so with the knowledge that council is working to reduce water quality and oyster growth rates.

 

The Bega District news recently reported on the first hurdles faced by the recently appointed Murrah flora reserve management committee. According to committee member and former NPWS employee, Jamie Shaw , “ . . . The poor regrowth and logging has happened, so now, as a priority for ongoing management we need to get the money, know-how to protect the koalas and include the Aboriginal community at all times, that’s key for us. ”

Jamie lamented that “ . . . the  NSW government and Forestry Corporation had given NPWS only $110,000 a year to manage the reserve which would go to funding one Indigenous Australian field officer, one vehicle “and that’s it”.

He went on to suggest “ . . .  2000ha in the reserves were a “powder keg” for bushfires and extremely poor habitat for koalas due to dense regrowth of casuarinas and acacias in the under and mid storys after logging in the ’80s and ’90s.”

While the 2,000 hectare figure for the ‘powder keg’ seems a lot short, the know-how issue could depend on acknowledging the bleeding obvious.

As indicated on the new reserve sign firewood collection is not permitted. Forestry Corporation had a similar sign. However, every winter dozens of tonnes of firewood are removed from just around here. Across the whole reserve the figure is likely to be hundreds of tonnes.

So perhaps the committee may consider some community engagement, to get an estimate of firewood use. Rather than the annual loss of dead eucalyptus, the strategic use oaks and wattles could be considered,  given they are both good fuel woods. If the local community can be accommodated, with some organisation, actually policing the firewood prohibition may also be a consideration.

noperm

 

Relevant to the committee’s deliberations, the BDN also reported on some recently published long term fire research titled, Biophysical Mechanistic Modelling Quantifies the Effects of Plant Traits on Fire Severity.

Undertaken through Wollongong University, leader of the research Dr Philip Zylstra said “ . . . controlled burning could be helpful under certain conditions though at other times it was counterproductive”.

He went on to say “ . . . Instead of assuming that burning will make the forest less fire prone, we can now look at that and say ‘if we burn this forest it kills these plants, but it germinates these other ones here’ and how will that then change the fire risk over the coming years and even decades,”

This is the situation in most of the reserves, where logging and burning have combined with ‘natural’ forest decline to produce a very thick mid-storey layer.

Perhaps not surprisingly, a spokesperson for the RFS said “. . . We are currently looking at this topic however given that his research is some way from operational application and due to the complexity of the models, it is not something we can readily adopt.” Does make me wonder what the majority of reserve committee members will readily adopt.

This week’s Narooma News reports on a “. . . newly formed committee drafting the working plan for the Murrah Flora Reserves.” Those selected for the committee include five NPWS/OE&H employees, three reserve neighbours, chairpersons of the Biamanga and Gulaga management boards, two representatives from the South East Timber Association and a Rural Fire Service representative.

The inclusion of SETA representatives seems to infer the original proposal, to protect 2,800 hectares of forest from logging, remains on track. In addition and excluding the neighbours, whose opinions are currently unknown, all of the other committee members support burning forests.

According to NPWS ranger Simon Conarty, “. . . We have a real opportunity to implement a range of actions that will promote a forest structure and regenerate koala browse species to improve floristic diversity and habitat values.”

Exactly how this is to be achieved isn’t apparent, given die-back isn’t an issue and the first meeting focused on ‘cultural burning’ and 1080 baiting.  Simon stated, “. . . Cultural burning initiatives are strongly supported by the boards because they enhance fire management and provide opportunities to the Aboriginal community to connect to country and be involved in management across the landscape.”

Of course there is no information to suggest Aboriginals burned these forests. Rather the evidence confirms burning was largely constrained to grassy forest ecosystems and headlands. So it seems a shame that lighting inappropriate fires is seen as a way to connect with country.

On the 1080 baiting issue, the article refers to wild dog control, although it must be nearly 20 years since I last heard a dingo. There seems little doubt that losing dingoes has improved the lot for foxes. In that regard I recently found the fresh fox scat, on the left in the photo below,  within 1km of 1080 bait location, although the bait remains untouched.

scatbol

 

Simon also refers to the ‘20 threatened fauna species and three threatened flora species’, found in the reserves. One of the threatened species is the Powerful owl, although there doesn’t appear to be any Powerful owl records in the reserves post 2004. However, early this week, the day after a powerful owl was heard close by, I found the owl bolus, on the right in the photo, in the front yard. It was adjacent to a brush tailed possum’s head and entrails. Although they used to be a lot more common, populations of all forest owls were greatly reduced after the extensive canopy die-back event of 2002-04.

The NSW scientific committee undertook a review of the powerful owl’s vulnerable status in 2008. Unfortunately the information they had came from research undertaken prior to 2002. So it will be interesting to see if the OE&H/NPWS can confirm there has been no reduction in the populations of threatened species, including owls.

While dealing with the NSW government is a constant source of disappointment, I am happy to announce my trial syngas collector, on the second attempt, actually worked and surprisingly filled the 2,000 litre gas bag. The gas provides an additional heat source for the solar timber dryer, to reduce the moisture content. While the outcome is a little beyond my expectations, it seems reasonable to assume any notions the NSW government may take a different approach are well beyond expectations.

 

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